The Evaluation Of Teaching Has Become A Widely Accepted Practice

In the last ten years the evaluation of teaching has become a widely accepted practice in higher education, but methods vary widely from school to school and from department to department. Recent national interest in the quality of teaching in higher education has spawned a movement to include teaching effectiveness in the criteria for promotion and tenure decisions, even in some research universities. Some departments already use teaching evaluations informally in promotion and tenure decisions, usually as a verification that minimum standards are being met. Many departments use evaluations to decide which graduate students will receive teaching assistantships.

In the last twenty years, researchers have confirmed the stability, consistency, and validity of student ratings of instruction. Most factors that one might expect to influence student evaluations have little or no effect. Neither student characteristics (sex, age, class level), course characteristics (size, subject matter), nor instructor characteristics (sex, rank, age, etc.) have much effect on the outcome, provided the instruments and procedures are sound. Student evaluations do tend to correlate positively with expected grade, but the reason for this is open to interpretation. Recent research indicates that on standardized outcome measures, students learn more from teachers they rate highly, so one would expect that anticipated grades would correlate well with the ratings.

Teaching evaluation can be performed for two different (sometimes conflicting) purposes: (1) to provide feedback to the teacher for correction and improvement, and (2) to make decisions regarding promotion, tenure, or merit raises (or, for TAs, more teaching assignments). The first purpose is diagnostic and therapeutic, the second is judgmental and administrative; they are mutually exclusive. If a teacher is shown to have a serious teaching problem in an evaluation and is not given an opportunity to correct the situation before a decision is made regarding promotion or pay, the evaluation process becomes punitive.

Even if your department is not interested in evaluating your teaching, you have a professional responsibility to do so, since it is the key to teaching improvement. Also, if you are a teaching assistant finishing your graduate career, you may find that student evaluations are required in job applications, especially if the college for which you are interviewing is a “teaching institution.” In this period of heightened national concern about the quality of higher education, even research universities have begun to demand proof of teaching ability from prospective faculty.

If you focus on the diagnostic and therapeutic aspects of teaching evaluation, it will help make the practice a natural part of your teaching repertoire. Evaluation for feedback and improvement should be a continuous process from the first day of class. Your daily interactions with students and their performance in class and on tests can provide a stream of information about your teaching. However, systematic data collection provides more detailed information than these informal channels, and it should begin early in the course.

Early evaluations enable you to make changes in the course or your teaching before it is too late. End-of-semester evaluations provide an overall measure of your performance and the effectiveness of the course, but they occur too late to benefit the students who fill them out. After several years in school, students often become cynical about teaching evaluations because they never have an opportunity to see if they did any good.

Early evaluations can begin after the first two or three weeks of the semester when things have settled down and students have had a chance to formulate opinions about the course. Soliciting information from your students can be accomplished using formal or informal methods and open-ended or structured questions. You can use any system as long as it is anonymous and students understand the purpose of the exercise.

Stop the class ten minutes before the end of the period and ask them to take out a sheet of paper and draw a line horizontally across the middle of the page. On the top half of the page ask them to list three things they like about the course and they way it is being taught. On the bottom half, they should list three things they would like to change and include practical suggestions for making these changes (note the positive phrasing). Some teachers ask for this information in the form of a “dear teacher” letter. When they are finished, remind them not to sign the papers and ask a student volunteer to collect them.

As you read through the first ten or twelve papers, jot down the categories into which their comments fall. This procedure will help you tabulate comments and keep your attention focused on the most important information. Remember, you are looking for trends and should be most concerned with elements that a majority of students comment upon. Don’t let a few negative comments overshadow the good responses you receive. (If only a few students complain about some aspect of the course, but their complaints are particularly bitter, try to discover the source of their displeasure.) After you have analyzed their comments, stop the next class ten minutes early to report the results of the evaluation. Cite elements of the course that they liked and indicate if you are going to expand upon or emphasize those things in the future. Explain what you are going to do about things they wanted to change, or explain why you cannot make changes. You don’t have to change everything they dislike, but you need to explain why you are not going to make changes.

This simple feedback technique yields a number of benefits: it samples the things that are uppermost in their minds when they think about the course, demonstrates that you are interested in improving the course and your teaching, and opens the way for them to offer comments and suggestions in the future. The effect of the exercise is to initiate a healthy dialogue between you and your students about the teaching process.

Some teachers prefer to use simple questionnaires for gathering early student feedback, especially in large classes. These forms usually focus on a few selected aspects of the course or teaching methods but also allow for some open-ended commentary. Having students address specific questions about the course is particularly useful if you are teaching it for the first time.

You can conduct simple feedback exercises several times during the semester to assess particular units of instruction, to check on changes you have made, or to get student reactions to new teaching methods. Early, frequent evaluations create an atmosphere in which students are far more likely to speak up when some aspect of the course is causing trouble for them.

End-of-course evaluations can be useful for teaching improvement if the questions are related to specific teaching behaviors. For example, if you were to receive a low rating on the statement “My instructor returns exams and assignments quickly enough to benefit me,” you could take steps to improve the turnaround time for grading exams and papers. By contrast, items such as “My instructor stimulates me to think and learn” are not as useful for teaching improvement – if you got a low rating on that item, how would you become more “stimulating?”

Attitudinal items and items that require overall assessments of teaching are appropriate for judging an instructor’s general level of performance in comparison to other teachers, but interpretation of the results must be done with great care. For example, if a teacher is asked to teach a course at the last minute it is very likely that his or her performance will suffer. Other factors such as illness or a heavy committee schedule can also result in poor performance. Moreover, research indicates that norm group statistics for comparison of teachers should be based on instructors in related fields – teachers in math should not be compared with teachers in music or history. If statistics for discipline-related groups are not available, figures on teaching performance within the department can be compared.

Summative evaluations should provide quantitative and qualitative data. Although many teachers prefer questionnaires that require lengthy written responses, it is extremely difficult to analyze these kinds of answers, particularly if the class is large. A questionnaire that also provides for scaled responses will make analysis and interpretation easier, since the scales allow you to spot trends easily, and student comments may illuminate the reasons for particular trends in the data.

Peer Evaluation Your Colleagues can provide useful information for improvement of your teaching. Ask other teachers, especially those with more experience, to observe and critique your teaching and offer to do the same for them. They may be able to suggest innovative ways to handle course material, and they can offer advice about aspects of your teaching performance with which you are dissatisfied.

Students can report what happens in your class from day to day, how closely your tests match the course material, whether the course is logically organized, and similar aspects of your teaching. They cannot judge how much you know about the material or how wisely you have chosen the material to cover – only your department colleagues can make those determinations.

A few rules regarding evaluation procedures should always be observed:

  1. End-of-semester evaluation questionnaires should be administered during the last week of class, never during the final exam. If you give it before the exam, students often resent having to spend the first part of the period, when they are fresh and ready for the exam, for something not related to the test; if you ask them to fill it out after they finish the exam, they are usually tired and in a hurry to leave and will not consider the evaluation questions very carefully.
  2. Students should have adequate time to fill out the forms, at least 20 minutes for an average questionnaire.
  3. Anonymity should be guaranteed on all student evaluations.
  4. End-of-semester evaluations should not be examined by the teacher until course grades are officially recorded.
  5. The teacher should leave the room when students are filling out evaluations (research has shown that students tend to give higher ratings if the teacher is in the room when the form is administered).
  6. When colleague observations are used for general evaluations or for promotion and tenure decisions, the observers should be trained to use a checklist or similar instrument to foster inter-rater reliability. They should also meet with the teacher to discuss his or her approach to teaching, observe the class several times, examine course materials and tests, and write a report summarizing their findings.


Megan Wilson is a teacher, life strategist, successful entrepreneur, inspirational keynote speaker and founder of Megan champions a radical rethink of our school systems; she calls on educators to teach both intuition and logic to cultivate creativity and create bold thinkers.


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